GORDON 'Butch' Stewart yesterday urged Jamaicans to put aside bickering and rally 'round the Government as it prepared to take the country into what he described as "perhaps the most important economic contract in the nation's history".
Stewart, the region's leading hotelier, was referring to the Extended Fund Facility for US$750 million which the Portia Simpson Miller Administration is about to sign with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The Sandals Resorts International chairman is on record as having cautioned Jamaicans against sitting around waiting for an IMF agreement and to concentrate their efforts on ways to earn our way of the problems. But with a draft agreement in place, he suggested it was time to come together.
"We seem to be on the brink of an IMF agreement and congratulations are in order. This is crunch time, and it is hardly the time for us to quarrel among ourselves or to criticise each other, as we are all in this boat together," Stewart said in an interview he hoped would help galvanise the country to face the usually stringent conditionalities imposed by the IMF, in exchange for its vaunted seal of approval.
"In fact, I believe that historically, Jamaicans have always given full support to any Government of the day to negotiate on behalf of all of us," he told the Jamaica Observer, of which he is chairman. "Today is no different. I believe that deep in our DNA all of us believe that 50 plus one is a majority, and on that basis the people in power have become our representatives, for better or for worse."
Stewart also called for solid private sector input in the negotiating process and afterwards, in an apparent response to a Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) weekend press statement warning about massive job losses and other fallout from the $16.4-billion tax package unveiled last week by Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips.
He noted that the great majority of the private sector was worried and uneasy over what they felt was a lack of adequate consultation going into the agreement.
"What we do know is that there is no agreement which stands any hope of succcess, unless the society — which the Government is relying on to stick its neck out, take risks and motivate itself to perform — is comfortable with it.
"Desperate people make desperate decisions when they believe options are few. But in hindsight, we may not need to be as desperate as we sometimes think. All of the various sectors must be in a position to create opportunities for each sector to grow. We must be given room to create policies which allow for expansion of the economy and the improvement in the living standard of Jamaicans.
"There is a big discussion about waivers. In my humble opinion, waivers do not substitute for proper policies looked at on a sector by sector basis, because waivers are always temporary. Here this year, gone next year, back the next. If the economy is to grow, we have to galvanise the private sector. The private sector must be in a position to grow as that is the source of taxes and jobs."
Stewart found worrisome the fact that some companies were able to get "incredible tax-saving deals" while others with similar needs were not similarly blessed.
"And I am talking about companies within the same sectors. That is not logical, and that is the sort of thing that demotivates, sows bad feelings, and drives people away from investing. We must, especially at a time such as this, do everything to keep the playing field level for everyone.
"There must be significant room for expansion, for export growth, for private-sector led growth. Otherwise, we are merely tinkering. These are the times that demand of us only our best as a nation. We must put forward our leaders with a proven track record of performance to ensure we are getting the best we can out of this IMF agreement. And this should be done before we put the final ink to an agreement of this magnitude.
"We are going to need a lot of luck, but most importantly, we are going to need a lot of good and sound business decisions, or risk doing more of the same and repeating the mistakes of the past," said Stewart.
He gave Simpson Miller and Dr Phillips the thumbs up saying: "Personally, I have a lot of hope in the prime minister and her instinct and I also have a lot of faith in Minister Phillips. We are all wishing for the best possible outcome for our beloved nation."